What does language mean? Not: "How does language make you feel?" or "What are your best memories of language?" or even "What comes to mind when I say 'language?'"
Consider what language actually means... that language, by definition, should have meaning.
The American poet Allan Ginsberg said, in his 1966 poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," that "almost all our language has been taxed by war." The Italian fabulist Italo Calvino noted, in his Norton Lectures, that "a pestilence has struck the human race in its most distinctive faculty -- that is, the use of words." And John Cage, writer and musician, simply resigned himself in one poem to the fact that "I have nothing to say / and I am saying it."
Words, it seems, are beginning to fail us. The wave of mass media washes over us with regurgitated advertising disguised as critical insights. Politicians tap-dance out a double-speak that leaves sentences gaping for meaning. Vocabulary, once a means by which people could distinguish themselves, has now become the content of another standardized test that children need to pass in order to graduate from childhood.
But a solution to the problem lies in its very source: language. Every time someone listens to another person speak carefully and clearly until the listener knows exactly what the speaker means... every time a book or a poem is read, and the precision of the language brings things and places to vivid life in the mind of the reader where nothing was before, language gains back some of its power.
So this fall, consider opening up a book or sitting in silence as someone else speaks. Reconnect with one of mankind's most sublime traits. It can be done at home in a favorite chair, or it can be done with hundreds of other people in a crowded stadium. It can happen aloud or in silence. There are, of course, enormous stores devoted to books, like Barnes & amp; Noble, Hastings, Auntie's and Borders, and most of them publish monthly listings of their upcoming readings and special offers. But there are other venues, as well. Across the Inland Northwest this season, opportunities abound to learn how, exactly, language connects us.
Spokane Is Reading -- One of the year's biggest literary events is the Spokane Public Library's "Spokane is Reading" program. It's big because it draws on readers from everywhere in the region, and fosters discussions and explorations of a single book -- this year, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Weaving the classic themes of The Odyssey with Whitmanesque Americana, Frazier's novel tells the story of a Civil War Confederate soldier who leaves the war and journeys home across the South to the love of his life.
Drawing on the successful experience of last year's program, when the entire community read Kent Haruf's Plainsong, the Spokane Public Library has expanded the program to include several supplementary books, discussions, and performances throughout the area. (Not to mention the motion picture of Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, which will be opening at Christmas.) The whole event kicks off at the Downtown Library on Oct. 1 with a presentation by the Washington Civil War Association entitled "Life of a Soldier." Other presentations by the group will be scattered around the area at other libraries, such as "Women in the Civil War" at the South Hill Library on Oct. 4, and "Medicine in the Civil War" on Oct. 7.
Linking the whole project together will be a series of book group discussions at all of the branch libraries at different dates in October, and a lecture on how to lead a book discussion (led by this writer) at Auntie's on the evening of Oct. 2. This year's program will culminate in a performance of "Taps: The Civil War in Word and Song" at the Met on Oct. 28 by William and Carla Coleman. The complete schedule for "Spokane is Reading" can be found at any local library or online at spokaneisreading.org.
Auntie's -- Serving as the unofficial center of Spokane's literary reading scene, Auntie's Books in downtown Spokane has a packed lineup of readers this fall. Three or four authors each week can be hard to keep track of, so be sure and pick up a copy of Auntie's Notes, the store's newsletter and events listing, when you're downtown.
Allan Hardman leads things off on Sept. 13 with an afternoon presentation on the way that one's beliefs limit one's potential as a person. A Toltec Master, Hardman was trained by Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of the popular guide to self-fulfillment The Four Agreements.
Douglas Chadwick talks about how to teach a grizzly bear, when he reads from True Grizz Sept. 17. As part of a team in northwestern Montana, Chadwick worked to educate grizzlies about where they should and shouldn't roam. It's a refreshing change of perspective from the usual human-centric endangered species genre, and Chadwick will also be showing slides from his adventures.
While babies may not be able to communicate in words with adults, there's a large group of people who believe that there is a system behind their burbling and bawling. Based on the book Baby Signs, by Linda Acredolo, certified Baby Signs instructor Lisa Eckberg will offer a morning introductory discussion about the system on Sept. 27.
Perennial favorite Ivan Doig will be making a pilgrimage to Auntie's on Oct. 1 to read from his newest novel, Prairie Nocturne. Featuring the character Susan Duff, who readers may recall from Doig's Dancing at the Rascal Fair, Doig tells a story about racism and other secrets that find fertile soil in the characters' isolated ranchland.
Another Montana author, David Quammen, reads from his newest book, Monster of God, on Oct. 10. Casting his expert eye over the rapidly diminishing areas of wilderness where predators still reign, Quammen suggests, according to Auntie's, "that in the poignant and troublesome ferocity of these embattled creatures, we recognize something primeval deep within us -- something in danger of vanishing forever."
October at Auntie's takes a historical turn with Jack Nisbet's reading on Oct. 15 from his new book Visible Bones. Nisbet, a Spokane author and naturalist, explores the western territory that is defined by the Columbia River, casting the farmland and the mountains in their changing natural and human contexts.
A former vice president, dean and professor at EWU, Raymond Whitfield closes the month with a reading from his latest book Job on Oct. 27. A Bible-study resource, Job looks at one of the Old Testament's iconic tales and asks what it has to teach us about suffering and religious criticism.
And finally, PEN/Faulkner Award winner David Guterson comes to Auntie's on Dec. 5 in support of Our Lady of the Forest, in which a young, itinerant mushroom picker is visited by the Virgin Mary in the damp, shadowy woods around North Fork, Washington.
Gonzaga -- Not far from Auntie's in Spokane, Gonzaga University regularly offers some of the most intriguing presentations and lectures in the region. "Beyond Silence & amp; Scandal," a lecture delivered by Mark D. Jordan, professor of religion at Emory University, addresses the intersection of Catholicism and homosexuality. Jordan will deliver his lecture, which is part of the "Catholicism for a New Millennium" series, on Oct. 6 in the Barbieri Courtroom at the GU School of Law.
On Oct. 16, Rev. John Dear, a Jesuit priest, peace activist, and regular arrestee (for civil disobedience against war and injustice), will speak on "Waging Peace: Nonviolence in a World of War." Also held in the Barbieri Courtroom, the 8 pm lecture is free.
Finally, a two-day seminar devoted to "The Indian Experience" will be the campus' focus on Nov. 22-23. The seminar, which looks to the teachings of indigenous peoples for models of the elimination of hatred, will be held in the Foley Center Library's Teleconferencing Center. Space is limited, and $20 registration in advance is suggested. Contact Raymond Reyes at 323-6550 for more information.
Goin' South -- Ground zero for literature in the Palouse is the comfy, quirky Bookpeople in Moscow. Concerts and readings abound, so be sure to contact the store itself for the most recent information. Some highlights of the upcoming season, however, include a reading by Bethine Church, the widow and poltical partner of Idaho's four-term U.S. senator, Frank Church. She'll be reading from her autobiography, A Lifelong Affair: My Passion for People and Politics, on Sept. 18. Zen is the topic of Dr. James Austin when he reads at the store on Oct. 25 from his books Zen and the Brain and Chase, Chance, and Creativity.
Other events on the Palouse center upon the two universities located in Pullman and Moscow. The University of Idaho will play host to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she delivers the Sherman Bellwood Lecture for the UI College of Law on Sept. 18. Former governor of Idaho and Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus will lecture on environmental issues in Pullman in WSU's Todd Hall Auditorium on Sept. 25.
Then, back in Moscow, UI will feature poet Ellen Bryant Voight reading and lecturing at the UI Law Courtroom on Oct. 8; nonfiction author Beverly Lowry will speak on Oct. 15, as part of the University's Distinguished Visiting Writers Series. Finally, a four-day Native American-issues symposium, "Indigenizing Education," will be held from Nov. 3-6 across the university, featuring regional and visiting specialists.